Thursday, February 5, 2009

Slave Clothing: Interwoven Cultures (part 2)

In addition to preferred patterns, the slaves exhibited a partiality for bright colors. Slaves especially preferred red in their attire. After emancipation, red shirts were given to some newly freedmen as a way to gain their votes for candidates. One of these freedmen explained, "it never would have dont to have a black shirt, no sir; I's sure of dat. Dat would have had not 'peal to our color." (see Slave Narratives: South Carolina Narratives). An African American folk story illustrates how enticing the color red seemed to be:

In Africa they had very few pretty things, and . . . they had no red colors in cloth . . . Some strangers with pale faces come one day and draped a small piece of red flannel down on the ground. All the black folks grabbed for it. Then a larger piece was draped a little further on, and on until the river was reached . . . They was led on, each one trying to git a piece as it was draped. Finally, when the ship was reached, they draped large pieces on the plank and up into the ship till they got as many blacks on board as they wanted.

The slaves showed ingenuity in creating the colors they desired. They learned to make dyes out of the vegetation around them. Combinations of walnut, elm, cherry, and red oak created various red dyes. Cedar moss was used for yellow dye and straight walnut was used for brown. It was common, even necessary, for the slaves to use local natural resources to create their handcrafted items.

In addition to patterns and colors, slaves also viewed hairstyles as a way to assert individuality and the unique qualities of their culture. The most prevalent hair ornament was the head kerchief. Although the head kerchief has become associated with the slave mammies, almost all slave women wore them. The head kerchiefs were worn both during work and at times of celebration and festivals. In a world of forced conformity, hairstyles allowed slaves to assert individuality from other slaves as well as white society.

Sundays were the one day most slaves did not have to work for the master. Therefore, on Sundays, they took even greater care to dress and style themselves. One slave went barefooted throughout the week but wore shoes on Sundays. When asked why, he explained that he could wear out his feet during the week because they belonged to his master but he took great care with his shoes because those belonged to him.

Certainly, slavery was a confining, degrading experience for those enslaved. The actual opportunities for cultural or social interaction were limited. It must not be forgotten that first and foremost, slaves worked. After the hours of working as chattel, many slaves returned to their own quarters to work for themselves (many had gardens and they had to cook and care for their own families). That they were willing to spend their own time and the little money* they had on clothing seems to indicate that it was a way for them to show pride and artistic expression. Certainly the aesthetic, skills, and traditions that formed during the slave period continue to impact American culture today.

*One historian claims that slaves spent 80% of their money on fabric and clothing.

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